Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Curse of the First Cast Fish

It was an unseasonably warm and sunny morning on Lake Delavan.  Right around the middle of April, I believe.  Too many fishing seasons have passed to be sure now.  What I do remember is that I had to strip down to my skivvies in the bow of Brian's jon boat to get my long underwear off as we were motoring out.  While I had my bibs and union suit tangled around my boots, struggling to get re-dressed, he goosed the throttle over and over, sending me sprawling to the deck more than once.   Laughing and threatening to tumble me into the frigid spring water, he was having a grand time of it already, and we weren't even fishing yet.

We set up in area known to be good for crappies that time of year.  Minnows on gold Aberdeen #8 hooks below a slip float, a step or two up from the old cane pole on the bank, but not exactly highly technical fishing.  I fiddled with my set-up a bit, making sure the bobber stop was set where I wanted it, giving the split shot an extra scrunch, and finally, letting a minnow fly to plumb the depths in search of my dinner.

It was a thing of beauty, exactly what you want to see.  The bait hit the water, and the float barely had time to right itself before it slumped over again -- the signal that a crappie had risen to hit the minnow as it was falling.  Using the longer rod I prefer for this application, I swept up the slack line I'd not yet had a chance to mend or retrieve, and gave it that little pop of a hookset you use on papermouths.  The light rod bent into a deep arc, and soon enough, a gorgeous foot-long slabber with nice shoulders was brought to hand.  I try not to see them as only meat, but my mouth may have been watering as I tossed him on ice in anticipation of a fish fry that evening.

Then, as often happens when you count your grouse before you hit them, we experienced just about the worst morning of fishing you can have.  Not horrifically bad.  There were no gale force winds, the boat didn't capsize, and nobody died, but you know what I mean.  No more fish.  We fished under floats, we drifted, we tried every color and flavor of live and plastic bait in the boat.  It simply was not happening.  We could mark them, but the sun was high and the wind was low, and they weren't in the mood to play.  The end of our collective rope came around noon as we watched a kid no more than 12, standing on the dock at the launch, pull crappie after crappie after we'd taken the boat out.  The Curse of the First Cast Fish.

We fishermen are a notoriously superstitious bunch.  I do have a trinket or two that I enjoy using or having with me while I fish and hunt, but I'd thought myself fairly immune the mental games of The Curse... until it kept striking.

While I haven't chased them a lot in the past couple years, I do enjoy the freight train pull of the channel cat.  They dig and swirl, and when big enough, threaten to break line and bust tackle.  They always have one more run in them just when you think they're ready for the net..  A commendable attribute in any fish.  They're ugly and spiny and a little tough to handle when they thrash and twist in your hands.  I like that too.  This ain't casting tiny dry flies over timorous golden trout in an idyllic glade.  It's muddy and stinky, and everybody's probably gonna end up bleeding a little by the time it's all said and done.

The place I normally fish for them can be a real riot at the right time of year.  The fish winter in the lake.  At some point they decide to run back up to their summer haunts in the river.  I don't know if it's water temperature, day length, the angle of the sun or the season premier of Biggest Loser that sets them off on their journey against the current, but when the spring rains come, and they bunch up in the lowest reaches of the river to make their run, it can be outstanding for those of us lying in wait with cut bait and baitcasters.

 Moderation is a good thing.  Sometimes two rods are all I can manage in that spot.

We're allowed to use up to three separate lines here, but when they are in the river in spring, I seldom get more than two rods in the water.  The bite is too fast, and the third rod just ends up taunting me.  As if somehow, if I could only get that third line in the water, the catching would be that much greater, when in reality, it would most likely lead only to tangled lines, missed fish, and creative cussing.

On the other hand, more than a couple times in that very spot, the hammer of God has fallen after that first cast fish, and rendered me with a nearly empty cooler (and belly).  I remember a fine April morning that appeared perfectly nasty for the cats in my spot.  A warm wind barreled in from the west, churning the little backwater nearly to whitecaps, beating the last remnants of busted shore ice into submission.  The sun shone, but not too brightly, and the water level was very high.  All excellent conditions for chasing the bewhiskered torpedoes of bone and muscle.

I leaned hard into the wind as I walked down to my favorite shore fishing spot, having decided it was slightly less idiotic to fish the gale out in the cover of willows than in a boat.  I was thrilled to be out in perfect conditions for the spot, battered by gusts and vernal hormones.  I cast hard into the teeth of the gale, my cut-up sucker falling well short of the intended target, but it did not matter.  Before I could get the second line in the water, I heard a bait clicker screaming over the howling wind and looked to see the first rod bent over nearly double.  Perfect, I thought.  This day is going to be spectacular if we don't end up getting blown to Kansas.

But that was it.  The only fish of a long day watching clouds whip by at a very impressive clip.  The Curse was at work again.  It's to the point that I almost dread catching a fish on the first cast now.

So it was last weekend at camp.  Most of us arrived Friday for Drink Beer Burn Wood 2012.  Handshakes abounded, venison made it's way to the grill, and glasses were raised between friends.  Saturday morning, a handful of us headed down to the tiny lake at the end of the road to assess the mood of the panfish under the ice.  On the advice of a friend who had seen a solitary ice fisherman out there for part of the week, we drifted out to his spot, and popped a half dozen holes.  I may have marked a fish or two on the Vexilar, but it was pretty barren so we packed up the gear, and headed to a bigger lake down the road.

We trudged out on snow gone soft and mushy in the sun.  I know this lake much better.  A hole was drilled in a likely spot, I knelt in the snow and lowered down a miniscule teardrop jig tipped with a sliver of scented plastic, my first try on that water for the day.  I saw him racing up from the bottom on the Vexilar, and almost before I could react felt the distinctive pop.  I hoisted my smallish perch to the topside of the ice, and that was it for me.  Hours later, after many holes and every combination of jig and bait I could think of, every drop speed and jigging motion I could muster, my count held steady at one perch.  And that single fish did not even have the common courtesy to call up a pike as he struggled below my tip-up the rest of the fishing day.  We marked fish most of the morning, but could not get them to bite, which may be a topic for an entirely new post on outdoor frustrations that make you want to punch yourself in the face

I did, however, manage to accomplish my singular goal for the trip.  Richard, a native boy of the south transplanted to the land of hard water fishing by marriage, was along for the trip.  While I promised nothing, it was my secret hope to get him his first fish through the ice.  Not long after I landed my behemoth, he was able to pull an equally impressive ringback from the grassy depths.  And then, just as I had shown him, he succumbed to the Curse of the First Cast Fish.  

Sorry, bro.  I promise not to catch one on the first drop next time.


  1. The essence of catfishing: It's muddy and stinky, and everybody's probably gonna end up bleeding a little by the time it's all said and done.


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